Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine
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Fighting Cancer Through Technology

When you see your doctor for an annual physical, the routine is almost always the same: The doctor checks your blood pressure. Listens to your heart. Orders a few blood tests. But what if cancer screening became a part of that exam? And what if it were as simple as swiping the inside of your cheek with a cotton swab? 

A breakthrough technology developed by Lurie Cancer Center member, Vadim Backman, PhD, the Water Dill Scott Professor in Biomedical Engineering at the McCormick School of Engineering, may make this screening a reality as soon as 2016. On February 26, Backman talked about the technology to a packed room in the Ford Center as part of the Farley Fellow Seminar Series, a lecture series that features entrepreneurial-minded faculty who share lessons learned while bringing ideas to market.

Nanocytology is “a combination of microscopy and spectroscopy, which is sensitive to cell morphology [at very low levels],” explained Backman, who co-founded Nanocytomics, the medical device company overseeing the nanocytology’s development and market launch. “It can see things that you otherwise couldn’t see under the microscope — things that are highly predictive of cancer.” Earlier cancer detection would mean earlier treatment — and, in the case of lung, colon or prostate cancer, could reduce mortality rates by approximately 50 percent.

In the fight against cancer, Backman has made financial and personal sacrifices to get both of his biomedical device companies off the ground. (Along with Nanocytomics, he is co-founder of AmeriOptics, which develops fiber-optic technology to identify patients at high risk for colorectal cancer.) But that drive, he says, is one of the central reasons why his entrepreneurial ventures have been a success: “If you want to create a biotech business that tries to solve a cancer problem, the last thing you want to think about is money,” he said. “I would argue that it should be about passion. If you’re passionate about it, it’s all going to work out.”

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